Ryan Lochte, left, lost the lead as the anchor leg as France chased down the United States -- and Lochte, no less -- to win another riveting relay at the Olympics.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
LONDON -- Ryan Lochte grabbed at the edge of the pool, head down, staring at the water. Michael Phelps glared at the scoreboard, trying to digest the first silver medal of his Olympic career.
Right beside them, the French celebrated. It was just like 2008 but with the roles reversed.
This time, it was France chasing down the United States -- and Lochte, no less -- to win another riveting relay at the Olympics.
The U.S. did have some good news in the pool on Sunday though as Dana Vollmer set a world record in the 100 butterfly.
With Phelps looking much stronger than he did the night before, the Americans built a commanding lead over the first three legs of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay and never had to worry about the defending world champs from Australia.
When Lochte dove into the water on the anchor leg, he was a half-body length ahead of the field and looking to add another gold to his dominating victory Saturday in the 400 individual medley.
Yannick Agnel, playing the chaser role that Jason Lezak did for the Americans four years ago in this same event, sliced through the water and was right on Lochte's shoulder as they made the flip at the far end of the pool. With about 25 meters to go, they were stroke for stroke. But Lochte, who had already competed in 1,200 meters of racing over the first two days, simply didn't have enough left to hold off the towering, 20-year-old Frenchman, one of the sport's real rising stars.
Agnel touched in 3 minutes, 9.93 seconds, having gone exactly 1 second faster than Lochte over the last two laps. Lochte and the Americans dropped to silver in 3:10.38, while Australia -- the favorite -- didn't even get a medal. Russia took the bronze in 3:11.41, edging the team from Down Under by 0.22.
Phelps settled for his 17th career medal and completed his collection of Olympic colors, adding a silver to his 14 golds and two bronzes.
"At least I'm in a medal today," Phelps said ruefully, referring to a fourth-place finish in his first race of the London Games.
But silver was a bitter disappointment for the Americans.
"I was just really excited and I think I overswam the first 50 and it hurt me for the last 50," Lochte said. "But we were able to get a medal, so I guess that's good."
Even though Phelps got a medal this time, he didn't look happy. He lingered at the edge of the pool right above Lochte, before going over to congratulate the French.
Phelps put up the fastest time among the American swimmers, covering the second 100 in 47.15 and showing he still intends to be a force at these games after his disappointing start. Nathan Adrian swam the leadoff leg in 47.89, going out faster than Australian star James Magnussen to give the U.S. an early lead. Cullen Jones was solid too in the third spot (47.60).
Lochte was handed a lead of more than a half-second, but he couldn't hold it. Agnel covered the final leg in 46.74, while Lochte labored home in 47.74.
"It's tough," Phelps said. "We'd like to be on top, but Yannick has been swimming well all year and those guys put together a great relay."
The U.S. coaches will surely come under scrutiny for going with Lochte, who had little experience in the 100 free and had never competed on this relay at the Olympics. But, coming off his dominant showing the first night, it's hard to argue about going with a swimmer who appeared to have the hottest hand of all.
Two more world records fell earlier in the evening.
The United States' Vollmer took down the mark in the 100 butterfly, then Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa broke another in the 100 breaststroke -- denying Japan's Kosuke Kitajima an Olympic threepeat.
This was quite a night for France, and not just because of the relay. Camille Muffat won a riveting 400 freestyle duel with American Allison Schmitt, the two virtually stroke for stroke the entire way. Muffat held on to win by about half a stroke with an Olympic-record time, while Schmitt settled for silver.
Britain's Rebecca Adlington brought out the biggest cheer when she touched third, the home country's first swimming medal of the games.
Vollmer was third at the turn but powered to the wall for a time of 55.98, beating the record of 56.06 set by Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom at the 2009 world championships. Not bad for someone who didn't even qualify for the last Olympics, her career sidetracked by injuries and illness.
"I kept telling myself that my strength is my second 50," Vollmer said. "I kept really calm."
She dropped back her head when saw the time, then broke into a huge smile, slapped the water, and pumped her fists.
Lu Ying gave China another medal, taking silver behind Vollmer in 56.87. Australia's Alicia Coutts grabbed the bronze in 56.94.
Kitajima was trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same race at three straight Olympics. But, like Phelps the night before in the 400 IM, the Japanese star didn't come close.
Australia's Christian Sprenger took the silver in 58.93, and American Brendan Hansen claimed bronze in 59.49.